Breeding a Better Veggie

4/7/2012 10:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

Cornell Scientists Find Success With Varieties Suited for the Northeast

ITHACA, N.Y. — Despite serious flooding from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee last September, a potato grower in Athens, Pa., still harvested a beautiful crop of Lehigh potatoes that not only resisted flood waters but also common scab and the dreaded golden nematode, one of the world’s most damaging potato pests.

And for that he can thank Cornell University’s plant breeders.

With the continual change in plant pathogen populations, insects, requirements for increases in yields, greater nutrient use efficiency of crops, and changes in consumer preferences, vegetable breeders are continually trying to produce new varieties that will fill the needs. Since its founding, Cornell has been a leader in that area.

In the last few years, Ithaca plant breeders have released a number of new vegetable varieties, including two new potato varieties — Lehigh and Red Maria — from the potato breeding program and Honeynut, a miniature butternut squash from the cucurbit breeding program.

Lehigh, is a mid-late season table stock that has large tubers with yellow flesh. One of the few potato varieties grown in North America with name recognition is the yellow-fleshed Yukon Gold, but it does not yield very well in the Northeast.

A hope for Lehigh is that it has the Yukon Gold yellow flesh and is also well adapted to the region, resulting in good yields of high-quality tubers with few internal defects.

The Pennsylvania grower with the flooded fields noted that the Lehighs were the only variety that yielded well.

As for Lehigh’s flavor, Walter De Jong, an associate professor and director of Cornell’s potato breeding program, said, “I like it. The two potatoes I eat most (and I have lots of choices) are Lehigh and Andover.”

Yellow-flesh potato varieties are not known for being good for chip production, however De Jong said, “Lehigh chips fare better than most yellows, but not as well as white-fleshed chipping potatoes.”

Potato varieties released from Cornell University have often been named after potato growing regions of New York. De Jong works closely with Barb Christ at Penn State to evaluate breeding material from both programs at New York and Pennsylvania testing sites and on this occasion chose to name the breeding clone known earlier as NY 126 after Lehigh, a potato-growing region in Pennsylvania.

“Certified seed should be fairly easy for commercial growers to find, as about 100 acres was planted for seed in 2011 in the Northeast, (New York and Maine) with most being in Maine.”

Red Maria, previously known as NY 129, is a very pretty red-skinned, white flesh table stock potato variety. A good red that retains its color through storage is hard to find, but Red Maria can live up to this test, De Jong said.

“It is a good red color; it is not too pale, but not too dark. It is a good round shape with shallow eyes, a desirable feature if the potato tubers are to be peeled,” he said.

The yield is high and averaged 110 percent of that for Chieftain, the variety used as the standard, for this part of New York state.

Red Maria rarely shows internal defects and has good resistance to common scab and is resistant to golden nematode, De Jong said.

“Certified seed shouldn’t be too hard to find for the commercial grower in Northeast, as about 40 acres was grown in New York and Maine in 2011,” said De Jong.

Organic growers have been attracted to this variety and Ken White, owner of Saranac Valley Farms, Saranac, N.Y., produces double-certified seed (both New York certified and organically certified, NOFA-NY) Red Maria potato seed to fill some of the organic producers’ needs.

“I haven’t found anything I don’t like about this variety,” White said. “The yield may be a little lower than for some of the other varieties I grow, but it has been very consistent irrespective of drought or floods.”

Red Maria seems to store well, and White has kept it until late June. It is very popular, he said.

“I had 300 bushels this year and was sold out by mid-January, so for 2012 I will plant more,” White said.

Robin Ostfeld, who with Lou Johns co-owns Blue Heron Farm near Ithaca, N.Y., said, “We’re excited to try Red Maria for the 2012 season.”

Blue Heron Farm has been a certified organic farm for more than 25 years and currently grows the yellow-fleshed, high-yielding variety Keuka Gold, which was released from Cornell in 1999.

Vegetable breeding historically has been a slow process, particular for crops like potatoes, where it can take 10 to 12 years for the release of a new variety.

Collaboration between scientists from a number of countries has resulted in the completion of the sequencing of the potato genome, and researchers are optimistic that this new information will result in new potato varieties and other crops in the Solanum family (tomato, eggplant, pepper) being produced in a shorter time frame.

Cucurbit breeding has had a central role in plant breeding at Cornell University. The slicing cucumber Marketmore 76 and the Delicata squash are both examples of Cornell variety releases which continue to be popular with both the commercial and home grower.

Michael Mazourek, the Calvin Noyes Keeney assistant professor of plant breeding, and his research staff recently released the miniature prolifically producing butternut squash, Honeynut.

As families are becoming smaller in size and the upscale restaurants are looking for mini vegetables, there is a demand for small size in many vegetables.

Honeynut, averaging 6 to 8 inches long and weighing about 1 pound, fits this need and, said Mazourek, “is very sweet (Brix is often 12-15+), has a very fine-grained texture and a dark color, meaning it is rich in carotenoids.”

So, in addition to being of desirable size, it also has many of the sought nutritional attributes. Size can be modified to some extent by spacing, with crowding of plants resulting in super mini-sized squash and wider spacing resulting in larger butternuts.

“The fruit are an unusual green color when immature but ripen to a tawny color,” Mazourek said. “Growers need to allow plenty of time for this to happen, as this is a long-season butternut.”

Many of the nice attributes seen in this miniature butternut are due to it being an interspecific cross of Cucurbita maxima and Cucurbita moschata.

“This cross is difficult but can be done naturally,” said Mazourek.

Disease issues are commonly observed during the production and storage of squash. Honeynut shows good resistance to black rot in the field, and although some mildew is observed on the leaves, Mazourek said fruit quality remains superb.

Their only downfall appears to be that they dry out during storage. But, Mazourek said, “This isn’t really an issue as they don’t last into storage anyway!”

Nevertheless, with funding provided through the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) research is under way to improve Honeynut so it will store well into the winter.

Organic seed of Honeynut is available from High Mowing Organic Seeds, Wolcott, Vt. Funding from Organic Farming Research Foundation provides support for the continuing availability and the generation of other squash varieties suitable for the region.

Honeynut has been quickly accepted by producers in central New York. Ostfeld and Johns of Blue Heron Farm have grown it and this season will be trialing other potentially new squash varieties from Mazourek’s program.

Honeynut is sold at Greenstar Co-op in Ithaca, Mazourek said. Celebrity chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., is a big advocate of new varieties such as Honeynut and is excited to have them on his menus.

In addition to squash breeding, Mazourek has many other vegetable breeding projects under way. They include peas, cucumber, melons and peppers.

“Heat and peas is a challenge that is getting more difficult every summer,” said Mazourek. NOVIC has funded Mazourek to develop a robust tasty snap pea with improved heat tolerance.

Downy mildew is one of the major challenges for cucumber and melon production in the Northeast and resistance in pepper to phytophthora blight is important. Good progress is being made.

“We have resistant plants,” Mazourek said. “Now we are working on fruit quality and yield.”

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